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Roping in success: Jingmei's tug-of-war coach
In this 2010 photo, coach Kuo Sheng instructs his team in a match at the Tug-of-War World Championships in Italy. The team, which was almost disbanded in the lead-up to the event, went on to grab the championship cup, an achievement that inspired the film Step Back to Glory. Photo courtesy: Kuo Sheng
Publication Date : 11-03-2013
Kuo Sheng is determined to not let the fact that his team's achievement inspired a popular movie get to his head
For a coach with world championships already under his belt, Kuo Sheng stands out as strikingly ambitious.
His story and his team may be familiar to people as the unique story which has inspired books, documentaries and the successful film, Step Back to Glory. He is the coach of the Jingmei Girls High School's tug-of-war team, whose unexpected 2010 Indoor World Championship sparked attention nation-wide.
The high school team, now internationally acclaimed, went on to bag further world championships in 2011 and 2012, among other successes.
In spite of the recent buzz from Step Back to Glory, Kuo has insisted on continuing routine daily training with his squad of some 20 high school girls. He admits, however, to having watched the film five times already.
A humble, low-key person, Kuo is a coach who asks the best from his students - sometimes seemingly barking at them - but still worries about their future like a father.
“I don't just worry over their achievements in the game,” he said, “I worry about their college admissions, their punctuality, their hair, and even if they have boyfriends. They must all think I'm pretty annoying,” he said, with a tinge of smugness.
Kuo joined the Jingmei squad in 2003, after an offer from the previous coach, Lin Rou-li. “Lin had already trained a pretty solid team with good traditions and discipline,” he said. “I just came to continue her work.”
The road to the championship
As most people already know, the road to the championship was long and arduous. The school was about to stop enrolling athlete students for the 2009 tug-of-war team, Kuo recalled. “We had just lost an important national tug-of-war competition (and) the world championship still levied an age limit of 18 years. I saw no future for the game, in Taiwan or internationally,” coach Kuo said.
It wasn't until the world championship changed the age limit to 16 in 2009 that Kuo decided to continue. With the age limit now in their favour, the girls still had to reach the goal of 540 kg for a team of eight athletes. Gaining weight in such a short amount of time is a big challenge, he said.
Did the championship take him by surprise? “Yes, and no,” Kuo replied. “No, because I knew what these girls were capable of. Yes, because it was a team that had nearly reached its end.”
Not surprisingly, Kuo did not start out in tug-of-war but as a track and field athlete. Although he was invited to join the tug-of-war team, he turned down the offer. “The game did not sound very appealing. Pulling a piece of rope with eight people just didn't sound fun,” he said.That mind-set changed when he joined a temporary squad during his junior year for a local tug-of-war competition and lost to a team of 40- and 50-year-olds. “I could not accept the fact that we lost to a bunch of people who were amateur and practically double our age. That was when I realised that the game was not just about weight and pulling. There was skill involved,” Kuo explained.
Teamwork and perserverance
In the game of tug-of-war, a team must pull on a rope until a centre mark crosses 4 metres over to their side. Athletes must exert a large combined effort in the same moment in order to defeat their opponents. That's teamwork, Kuo noted.
If the opponent is weaker, the team will try to win the game with pure muscular strength, Kuo explained. If, however, the opponent proves to be stronger in weight, he said, “Then you try to win the game with muscular endurance.
“It's a method of defense used in tug-of-war. The entire team braces, using their endurance to strain the opponent's energy and pull immediately at the slightest sign of weakness.”
“I am pleased when teachers tell me they find the girls quite polite,” Kuo said. “These students have achieved so much more than anyone could ever expect of them.
“(To be honest), tugging a rope isn't really fun. I think sacrificing so many things to tug a rope is probably the most difficult part, not to mention becoming larger with callused hands. But these girls knew what they were in for before they came, and they ask the best from themselves, too.”
There will be continuing pressure, Kuo said. “After you've reached the goal once, you want more.”
The coach admits that the future for tug-of-war is pretty narrow, as it is not an internationally favored sport, not to mention that it was dropped from the Olympics decades ago.
“But, as long as these students bring home a medal, their chances of getting into college are a lot higher,” Kuo said.